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A pope's last request: 'Read me the Bible'

From Delia Gallagher
CNN

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Pope John Paul II died a year ago after 26 years as the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

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John Paul II

VATICAN CITY (CNN) -- While tens of thousands crowded St. Peter's Square for the ailing Pope John Paul II this time last year, those closest to the pope gathered around his bedside, bidding farewell to their mentor and leader of the church. They all say he was conscious to the end, and that among his last requests was, "Read me the Bible."

Pope John Paul II died a year ago Sunday, after 26 years as the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church and its one billion followers. As the anniversary of the death of this much beloved figure approached, CNN obtained rare access to the Vatican and those closest to the pope during his final hours. They offered insight into the final moments of John Paul II and his living legacy.

The pope was heartened by the crowds of people praying for him outside and across the world, giving him strength on his final journey: "He knew he wasn't alone. He was going to meet God with this great crowd behind him," said Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope's personal secretary and friend of nearly 40 years.

It was Dziwisz (pronounced: G-vich) who called the pope's closest friends the day before he died, telling them to come pay their final respects. Mother Tekla Famiglietti, the head of the Brigidine nuns in Rome, had known John Paul II since 1979, and was among those notified. It was around 10 a.m. (Watch the details of the pope's last day -- 9:10)

"I put on my coat and ran," Mother Tekla said.

When she arrived, there were others gathered around the pope praying, and a priest reading from an enormous Bible. Household staff were weeping in the halls outside the room.

"I knelt down and the pope was on my right with his head on a pillow, and he was praying. I would call it the prayer of the soul," Mother Tekla said.

It was a prayer he often gave in his private chapel, and she saw the pope in this instant recite the prayer 10 times. Dziwisz told the pontiff that Mother Tekla was at his side.

"Two eyes as his, they were like the eyes of Jesus upon me. They were like two stars. He talked, but I couldn't understand anything besides, 'Thank you' -- it was like he was saying we will see each other again. Such a beautiful thing, so joyous," she said.

'On the eve of his death'

Cardinal Edmund Szoka, the governor of Vatican City and the pope's friend of 30 years, also paid his respects. "I went right over and I went right into his bedroom," he said. "I went on the other side of the bed and knelt down and kissed his hand, and I said to him in Polish, 'Holy Father, the whole world is praying for you.'"

He too remembers the pope's eyes in those moments, as he clung to life between hard, laborious breaths. "It was hard for him to breathe. But his eyes were wide open, and he looked right at me, and he nodded to indicate he knew who I was," Szoka said.

"I stayed there, and I held his hand for a while. And then Cardinal Dziwisz motioned, time now, better go."

Archbishop Renato Boccardo, who had for years planned the pope's trips, was there as well.

"The pope was in bed, like any person on the eve of his death. Around him were his doctors and his household staff," said Boccardo. "I got on my knees near the bed. I kissed his hand, and ... certainly it was a moment of great emotion."

Boccardo said his mind was racing.

"In these moments, lots of images, lots of words, meetings come back to your mind," Boccardo said.

Going 'to meet God'

For Szoka, as he knelt next to the pope, it was clear the end was near. The pope's breathing was becoming more and more difficult. "That's what I remember. That's the last time I saw him, and it was painful to see him that way."

"What's going through my mind is that here's a pope, a person that I knew and that I loved very much. And I saw that he was dying."

But as April 1 came to a close, it was clear that the pope's mind was still working. He was weak and frail, but still conscious.

The next day, in the pope's final few hours, one of his last requests was simple. "He asked, 'Read me the Bible,'" said Dziwisz. "A priest read nine chapters of the gospel of St. John."

And the pope could still feel the presence of the thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter's Square and the millions from across the globe praying for him.

"He felt it, because all of his life he had been with the people -- the shepherd with his sheep," Dziwisz said.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said, "Through his inevitable suffering through his last moments, he was teaching something, something very important. This pope who had taught (so) many people around the world how to live was also teaching in those moments how a person can die."

On a table next to the pope, according to Dziwisz, sat a photograph of John Paul II's parents. In the room, there also was a painting of the Virgin Mary, and on the wall in front of his bed there was an image of the suffering Christ.

Dziwisz said the pope asked for the Mass of Divine Mercy, and it was celebrated during his last hour. "We prayed, 'Jesus, come down because we need you on the side of the Holy Father.'"

A single lit candle was placed in the pope's hand, a Polish tradition.

"He was next to us, at the altar. I don't know if he followed everything, because his eyes were closed," Dziwisz said.

Finally, at 9:37 p.m., Pope John Paul II -- surrounded by those who loved him most -- took his last breath.

"Death is sad," Dziwisz said. "But his death was beautiful, because he believed in where he was going -- to meet God."

For those in the bedroom, it was not a time of grief. Instead, they sang a hymn of thanksgiving.

"When we saw that his heart wasn't beating anymore, we didn't cry," said Dziwisz. "We sang, 'Te Deum laudamus,' thanking God for his life, for his accomplishments and for being able to stay with him until the end."

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